Turning it around
When my father bought his place in Vermont in 1935, the seller pointed to the huge maple tree next to the house & said "There's always a cool breeze comes out of that tree".

Prehistory of the Internet
Reading:  M. Mitchell Waldrop, The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal (Viking, 2001).  Jim gave it to me.

An intellectual and business history of computer development from the 1960s to 1990 --- the prehistory of the Internet, woven around the career of one "Lick", whom I had never heard of but who turns out to have been pretty important.  He had a vision, even during the mainframe era, of linked computers for the masses, and he was good at assembling & inspiring smart people and raising money for them from various government, academic, & business bureaucracies (they seem not to be all that different).  I couldn't actually follow the story (far too many names & acronyms to tell apart), but it is pleasing (tho chastening) to read about people who know their business and are doing something worth doing.

I suppose the vulgar short title was supplied by Viking.  The book itself is written in a vigorous colloquial style (sometimes a bit breezy) with remarkably few obeisances to journalese.

Tho some of the older people in the book (including Licklider) died before Waldrop started researching it, he did get to talk to very many of the younger ones, and of course there is a lot in print or in archives about their work, and he seems to have read it all.  I occasionally wondered how he knew what was going on in people's minds, but the copious quotations are all referenced, and I am inclined to trust him not to have made anything up for the story's sake, the way people do these days.

In a couple of places he mentions things I happen to know a little about, and (this always seems to happen) he makes me raise my eyebrows.  Some of his heroes were academic psychologists at some point in their lives, and they participated in the change of fashion from behaviorism to cognitivism, so he describes behaviorism at some length --- mostly, it seems, on the basis of cognitivist folklore, which he ought to have looked up.  In particular, the following sentence, about B.F. Skinner, is disgraceful:

He had raised his own infant daughter partially inside a baby-sized, Plexiglas "Skinner box" rigged for the appropriate rewards and punishments....

The box was not a Skinner box (tho it was a box, and invented by Skinner); it was an air crib.  A real Skinner box is a laboratory apparatus for training small animals, and it is indeed equipped for rewarding them (Skinner did not like punishing).  An air crib is a crib, that is, a place to put a baby to sleep (is that what "partially" "raising" one means?); like most cribs, it is not "baby-sized", but a good deal bigger than a baby (http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2010/september-10/skinner-air-crib.html).  It may contain a few toys & decorations, but it does not reward or punish.  It differs from ordinary cribs in being enclosed, so that the temperature & humidity can be controlled and the baby does not have to be bundled up.  Behaviorism played no role in its invention; it could have been invented by a Freudian or a Marxist or an imaginative nurse with no academic training; and the article cited suggests that its chances of adoption would have been better if it had not come from the notorious Professor Skinner.

I hasten to say that I am not & never have been a behaviorist.  I was brought up Freudian, and I have since become skeptical of all attempts to develop a technical language for discussing human behavior that does better than ordinary mentalistic language with critical additions & deletions.  I do not admire Skinner as a philosopher of science; I think he had a bad case of physics envy, which (as usual) he might have been disabused of if he had learned more physics.  I thought Chomsky's hatchet job on Verbal Behavior was well deserved.  But I do admire Skinner as a moralist.  We need a lot more of his experimental approach (Yankee ingenuity!) to making life better in this or that detail.  The air crib is one example; his utopia Walden Two contains plenty of others, well worth sorting out from the occasional foolishness.  (The commune I belonged to, Twin Oaks, was originally inspired by Walden Two, and has managed to confirm some of its suggestions.)

In his description of SAGE --- the network of state-of-the-art (vacuum-tube) computers that was built around 1960 to coordinate continental defense against Soviet bombers --- Waldrop is of course mainly concerned with its role in advancing computer technology.  He does make one comment about what other use it may have been:

...it's hard to say how effective the SAGE system really was in military terms, since it was (fortunately) never used in combat.  Arguably, in fact, the SAGE system was obsolete almost from the day it was commissioned, since by that point the United States and the Soviet Union were hard at work on intercontinental ballistic missiles that could be used to deliver a nuclear warhead across the North Pole in under an hour....

On the basis of chitchat I heard at Lincoln Lab about that time, saw in the press thereafter, and am able to confirm in part with Google, I think he might have gone farther:  SAGE was a kluge and a boondoggle --- the SDI of its era.  At best it was supposed to shoot down 75% of the incoming bombers, never mind missiles.  Also, it required a continuing programming effort to integrate new weapons into it.  A sizable bureaucracy was set up for that purpose, and it never caught up, even with our own improvements, much less the Russians'.  Years afterward, SAGE was being cited in some circles as a good example of what not to do with computers.  But who knows?  If a war had happened soon enough, it might have saved a few of us.

Oh, and PM wasn't a "socialist magazine".  It was a somewhat fellowtraveling daily paper.  And "sputnik" doesn't mean "little traveling companion".  It is the standard Russian astronomical term for satellite.  It also means traveling companion, but the "little" doesn't belong there at all.  "-ik" is indeed a diminutive suffix, but "-nik" is not.  (Bitch, bitch, bitch.)

Fuzz day
FuzzI get my hair cut once a year, when winter is officially over, as judged by the following criterion: temperature in the 70s, predicted & achieved, two days in a row.  That varies surprisingly: in the 27 years I have kept records, the earliest was 13 March 2012, the latest was 22 May 1992 & 1999, and the median is 5 May.

It was a half-hour struggle to get this picture to appear right side up.  I tried to make it smaller, but that only clipped it.  I have no idea how I might have put this text to the right of it.

Real life does not rhyme or scan...
or make sense.  But it can be made to parse:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough
And stands about the woodland ride,
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Seventy-six will not come again,
And take from seventy springs threescore and sixteen,
It only leaves me six less.

And since to look at things in bloom
Minus six springs are less than no room,
About Fellsmere Park I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Rabbit, run on
The following sentence appears in a review in the latest NYRev:

As well as his alter egos, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, his sad, comical, unintellectual "conduit" into middle America, Henry Bech, his witty impersonation of a lionized, peripatetic, cosmopolitan New York Jew, and Richard Maple, the antihero of his most savagely truthful marriage/adultery stories, Updike invents personae for himself in his stories whose occupations seem like a series of self-directed jokes.

Yes, that is a sentence, tho it took me three or four tries to find it out.  Treating it as a punctuation exercise for a remedial composition class, I obtain

As well as his alter egos (Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, his sad, comical, unintellectual "conduit" into middle America; Henry Bech, his witty impersonation of a lionized, peripatetic, cosmopolitan New York Jew; and Richard Maple, the antihero of his most savagely truthful marriage/adultery stories), Updike invents personae for himself, in his stories, whose occupations seem like a series of self-directed jokes.

That is unlovely but can be parsed the first time around.

As for John Updike, he lost me in 1972.  I wrote in a journal I was keeping then:

Wednesday afternoon 5 April     New Haven

Just finished Updike's Rabbit Redux.  It was disappointing, as most sequels are.  I really liked Rabbit, Run --- in fact, read it several times --- because it brought into sharp focus the difference between being abnormal and being neurotic.  Angstrom (funny --- I know the unit was named after a man, but that still sounds funny as a man's name --- as if someone were called Inch) is a normal neurotic: someone who leaves the radio on when he's driving & listens to the commercials & knows the names of the drivelly music; someone who, when he gets himself in trouble, goes first to his old basketball coach & then to his minister; someone who has no difficulty making sexual advances, & actually is attracted only to women --- & yet he is obviously fucked up: more so than I am, if one judges by the pain he is capable of causing.  Probably, in Rabbit, Run, he is a remembrance of Updike's unsophisticated youth, &, so far as one unaccustomed to normal people can tell, he is believable.  But now Updike has run off & become a literary man, so he has no experience on which to base his extrapolation of the Rabbit who stayed in "Brewer", & his imagination (constricted by his new parish, the N.Y. literary world?) mostly fails him.  The characters are too witty to be real, & not witty enough to be entertaining à la Shaw.  The plot is a positive soap opera of grotesque disasters.

In that respect Couples (wh. I read last summer) was better; there Updike was once again writing about people of his own generation and class.  My only complaint about that book was that it did not have a happy ending.  I read the beginning of it only a yr ago & then lost my copy, & all that time I hoped that it would turn out a pleasantly ironic story of a community kept together, & families stabilized, by adultery.  This idea was stimulated by a remark I read years ago, that no-one preaches sermons on the families that are saved by drink, which makes so many husbands & wives able to face each other & their children.*  /*Margaret Mead, perhaps?/  But it turned out not to be Mr Updike's idea.  (Perhaps I shd have been reading Rimmer's propaganda instead.)

Ethnic pest zones
Reading:  Thieves in the Night, by Arthur Koestler (1946).  First read, 1957; reread partly for sentimental reasons, partly for perspective on the current Israel--Palestine mess.

A novel set in the Jewish community in Palestine, 1937--1939.  Koestler himself lived there for a couple of years in the late '20s; he had been recruited to Zionism by a dueling fraternity in Vienna, and went there in the hope of settling in a kibbutz, but, like most things in Koestler's life, that didn't work out.  However, he remained sympathetic to the Zionist cause, and wrote two books --- this one, and a nonfiction historical--political one, Promise and Fulfilment --- during the period when the establishment of the State of Israel was being debated.  It is said that he had some influence on the eventual decision by the UN to partition Palestine and recognize the Jewish state.

Tho partisan, the book gives the arguments on all sides (Jews, Arabs, and Brits in all their various stripes, violent & nonviolent) --- remembering typical arguments was Koestler's strong point.  If you want to imagine why you might want to be a terrorist, this is a good book to read.  (If you want to imagine why you might want to be a torturer, you can read Darkness at Noon by the same author.)  Here is the end of one argument:

"This is not a discussion but a spiral nebula," puffed Moshe.  "It is heated, vaporous, and has no beginning and no end.  If I understand rightly, Joseph has just discovered that the Government of Mr. Chamberlain would like to get rid of us.  We know that.  We also know that they can't.  We have become too strong.  We are no longer a promise on a piece of paper, but half a million men, one third of the country's population and more than two thirds of its economy.  They let us down when the Arabs started shooting.  We have shot it out with the Arabs and have proved that we are a match for them.  We know our strength and have no need to get hysterical.  We have built up what we have acre by acre and cow by cow.  I for one know what my job is: to buy another acre and another cow.  Good night."

The Israelis, you will have noticed, still attach great importance to Facts on the Ground.

Altho the book improved my political sophistication when I first read it, its greatest impact on me, as a communist, at the time was in its description of kibbutz life.  At various crises in my youth I was seriously tempted to immigrate, but never had the courage to make an approach.  When American communes sprang up, however, it was only a matter of time before I joined one (Twin Oaks, 1972--1981).  It turned out that I, like Koestler, did not have the grit to be useful in building community over the long term.  It has also since turned out that such experiments, tho they would be immensely beneficial if they flourished, have not been successful in providing an alternative economic model or in remedying the deficiencies of the family as an institution for propagating the species in the industrial age.  They have been tolerated in many countries, including the US, and in Israel they were actually part of the establishment (in both senses), but they have not been able to overcome our tribal instincts or the premium that modern cultures place on mobility.

As to the Zionist experiment, I think in hindsight that it was badly mistaken of the Jews to reinsert themselves into the atavistic category of "nation" and into a region that was already an ethnic pest zone.  However, by reading Koestler's book you can see why it seemed sensible at the time, even to people who in principle were hostile to nationalism.

The result is that the Israelis are now part of a problem that, as far as I can tell, has no solution, if by "solution" you mean a possible outcome of a kind that decent people might wish for.  What is peculiar about ethnic pest zones (the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Cyprus, much of Africa) is not that they contain wicked and foolish people, but that wicked and foolish people hold the balance of power, because everyone has ample reason to mistrust the enemy and to continue to give the enemy reason for mistrust.  (I would be delighted to be proved wrong about this.  Has any region in that situation ever escaped it?  I suppose one could argue Britain, and conceive some hope for South Africa.)  It is unreasonable to expect people on either side to be reasonable.  Fortunately, I am not a politician and do not have to deal practically with that agony.  In thinking about such things I can therefore amuse myself with two desperate fantasies:

(1) IIWD:  What would I do if I were dictator --- if everybody concerned suddenly said "Mr Fineman, we are sick of this; tell us exactly what to do, and we will do it"?
(2) LEIO:  What is the least evil imaginable outcome (however improbable) in the actual situation?

IIWD:  Recombine Palestine (Israel & the occupied territories) and Jordan into a UN mandate coterminous with the original British mandate.  Give it a republican government subject to UN oversight and a permanent international occupation force sufficient to keep the peace.  Move the UN headquarters to Jerusalem.  Guarantee rights of the various religious and linguistic communities, but forbid vengeful propaganda.

LEIO:  "Jordan is Palestine".  Israel annexes the so-called occupied territories and drives out most of the Arabs, mostly into Jordan.  The only thing that can be said for this is that it would probably be less hideous than the status quo.  It would also be a terrible crime, comparable to the so-called rectification of frontiers in Europe following W.W. II.  And it would not lead to peace in the long run; it would only encourage the worst people in Israel to agitate further expansion (and, of course, to multiply vengeful motives on the other side).  An important branch of Zionism, called Revisionism --- an ancestor of the now dominant Likud --- for almost a century has called for a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan (it even has a song about it).

I have occasionally indulged a much nastier fantasy about such zones: a salutory hoax.  Invent, in some detail, a secret UN plan to demarcate the zone and sterilize it with hydrogen bombs; then arrange for leaks.  No sane person would believe such a thing, but the people who might believe it are the ones who most need demoralizing.

A heretical view of the prisoners' dilemma
Reading:  Brian Hayes, "New Dilemmas for the Prisoner", American Scientist 101(6), 422--424 (2013); http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/pub/2013/6/new-dilemmas-for-the-prisoner

This article gives further weird news about an old paradox in game theory called the prisoners' dilemma.  Rid of the fancy story that gave it its name, the game is as follows:  Two players, who cannot communicate except thru their moves, must each simultaneously choose either to cooperate or to defect.  If both cooperate, each receives a modest reward.  If both defect, each receives a booby prize.  If one cooperates & the other defects, the cooperator receives nothing, and the defector receives a large reward.  Evidently, the sensible thing is for both players to cooperate & rake in the modest reward.  Each, however, is diabolically tempted to reason as follows: whether the other player cooperates or defects, I am better off defecting (better the booby prize than nothing; better the large reward than the modest one), and so I should defect.  If both fall for that (and if I do, why shouldn't you?), each ends up with the booby prize.

A vast amount of experimental & theoretical research, some of it rather funny, has been done on iterations of this game, either between the same two players, or between various pairs of players in a group who can remember each other's past behavior.  Thus, defectors can be chastened by the mistrust of others, and it turns out that, in various models, a stable pattern of cooperation may emerge.  This line of investigation is interesting in that it suggests how cooperation of various kinds might have evolved within the Darwinian struggle for life.  The article mentioned contains some odd surprises.

The case of a single play between strangers, however, remains an embarrassment.  Hayes says

In a single game against a player you'll never meet again, there's no escape from this doleful logic.

and that seems to have been the consensus among game theorists going back to Luce & Raiffa's classical textbook (1957).  They say

Of course, it is slightly uncomfortable that two so-called irrational players will both fare much better than two so-called rational ones.  Nevertheless, it remains true that a rational player . . . is always better off than an irrational player. . . .
. . . No, there appears to be no way around this dilemma.  We do not believe there is anything irrational or perverse about the choice of [defection on both sides], and we must admit that if we were actually in this position we would make these choices.

Experiments, however, show that quite a lot of people know better.  And indeed, I believe that the remarks I have quoted, which amount to saying that the Golden Rule is contrary to reason, constitute a reductio ad absurdum of existing game theory as a model of human rationality.  If I were a mathematical logician and came up with an axiomatization of arithmetic that looked plausible on its face, but turned out to allow for a hitherto unsuspected integer >0 and <1, I would not publish it as a warning to schoolchildren & accountants; I would look for the mistake.

My suspicion is that the mistake here lies in supposing that the modeling of other players as rational analogs to oneself --- as maximizers of some value function --- can be entirely free of caring for those others: that empathy (theory of mind) & sympathy are entirely independent notions.  Clearly, they are independent to some extent:  In general, if I am wicked, I can use my insight into your state of mind to torment you; and if I believe that you are wicked, I can use it to frustrate you.  But it ought to be possible to put something in the formalism to force the players' utility functions to stick to each other in cases of common interest like the prisoners' dilemma.

In the meantime, I suggest the following thought experiment (to perform it in actuality would be expensive):  Let a couple of hundred naive subjects be recruited and assigned to random pairs to play the game once, anonymously at computer terminals, say for monetary rewards of 0, $100, $300, & $500.  After the rewards are distributed, let the company be given a free lunch, at little square tables accommodating four each.  There are place cards generated by the computer assigning to each table two of the pairs from the game, so that if I played you we are sitting across from each other.  There are three kinds of pairs (cooperators, defectors, and mixed), and so there are six kinds of tables (cooperators + cooperators, cooperators + mixed, cooperators + defectors, mixed + mixed, mixed + defectors, and defectors + defectors); the computer makes the assignment so that the six kinds are present in as nearly equal numbers as possible.  The lunch is a good one, with a choice of food & drink to encourage conviviality.  In one version, the participants might be tagged C & D; in another, they might be allowed to divulge their action or conceal it or lie about it as they chose.  A pleasant floral arrangement at the center of each table contains an omnidirectional microphone, and all conversations are recorded for subsequent study.

Exercise:  Imagine the conversation at one or another table.  A table with four cooperators, of course, has an easy time.  Four defectors, one may suppose, grimly congratulate each other on their rationality.  A pair of defectors lectures a pair of cooperators on how irrational they have been, and one of the latter says "Thank you for your advice; we'll be happy to rave all the way to the bank".  The mixed cases might result in some profanity.

Masturbation turns hens' eyes blue
Reading: James Agee, Cotton Tenants: Three Families, with photographs by Walker Evans (Melville House, 2013).

In 1936, James Agee (http://come-to-think.livejournal.com/22195.html) was sent by Fortune magazine to report on poor white farm families in Alabama.  He spent two months with three of them, and put a lot of effort into writing a 30,000-word article, which Fortune, for unknown reasons, never published.  He subsequently expanded it into a book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which sold badly but later became much esteemed.  Recently, the manuscript of the article surfaced and was edited & published as a book under the title mentioned.  There is of course some overlap with the longer book, but it can stand on its own and is interesting if you like Agee.  Here is one sentence:

Wasps whine threadily from their nest under the hot peak of the roof; rats skitter and thump and gnaw, and fight the cats; the hens tread the bare floors on horny feet; sharpen their bills on the boards, their eyes blue with autoeroticism; the broilers dab and thud at the mealy dung which the pup and, weightily, the youngest child, have delivered to the floor; the dogs and cats are gathered in by the odor of food among the bare feet under the kitchen table, Rowdy apologizing for getting his ribs kicked in, perfectly in that manner which has moved man to call the dog his best friend.

The bit about the hens must be a joke for Agee's bosses; he cannot have expected it to appear in print (except, perhaps, deliciously thru inattention).

Memory slums
The other day, after singing a song by Cyril Tawney, I confidently attributed it to Ewan MacColl.  Yesterday, reading an article on Camus with increasing puzzlement, I found that I had him mixed up with Sartre.  Those are among the many pairs & triples of nouns that seem to occupy the same slot in my memory, so that unless I am careful I will retrieve the wrong one.  Over the last few years I have compiled a list, ~/p/Memory_Slums:

Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease
Amazon, Ebay
André Gide, André Malraux
Barry Finn, Shay Walker
Bill Staines, Stan Rogers
Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind
Bob Blue, Fred Small
butane, propane
Camus, Sartre
Ceylon, Madagascar
Cole Porter, Noel Coward
Cyprus, Malta
Cyril Tawney, Ewan MacColl
eclair, napoleon
Edna St Vincent Millay, Elinor Wylie
Figaro, Tivoli
George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin
Iraq, Pakistan
Jack London, John Reed
Jane Fonda, Joan Didion
J. D. Salinger, John Updike
Jean Ritchie, Margaret MacArthur, Peggy Seeger
John Betjeman, Philip Larkin
Manitoba, Saskatchewan
Max Eastman, Max Lerner
Peter Drucker, Peter Viereck
Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton
Steve Allen, Woody Allen
The Naked and the Dead, From Here to Eternity
Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn

It is no surprise that most of the entries are proper nouns.  I have always had trouble with them.  The human race, in particular, walks around in a private fog of mine.

It seems to be getting worse.  I anticipate the day Fred Allen gets stirred into the pot with Steve & Woody.

Contempt cocktail
Sierra cup
In observance of the old advice to treat a cold with the contempt it deserves, I have switched to the following nightcap, which I developed some years ago.

Mix according to taste & conscience:

Orange juice (in honor of Linus Pauling)
Dark rum
Lemon extract

You are viewing come_to_think